Saints in Ordinary
626 East Lafayette Street in Ruleville, Mississippi is an unmarked empty lot. There’s a patch of trees, some grass, but other than that, it’s an unremarkable plot of land right in the heart of the Mississippi Delta in Sunflower County.
There is nothing around here to indicate the significance of this spot, but on August 22, 1964, that address was televised nationally, when a woman who lived at this address testified before the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, at no small risk to her own personal safety.
But by this time she had already been shot at, beaten, otherwise intimidated, and had also proven that she was not to be cowed by such attempts to silence her.
You may already know this story, and even if you do, it’s worth repeating because it’s a story of extraordinary and also very ordinary courage, which pits a poor Black woman, a sharecropper against the most powerful white man in the world.
My name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland, and Senator Stennis.
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In 1962 Fannie Lou Hamer was forty-five years old. She’d been a sharecropper on a plantation outside of Ruleville for her entire life.
Not far from Ruleville, west from Doddsville on State Road 441 is a community called Eastland. It is named for the Eastland family, who owned a 2,300-acre plantation here (and still does as far as I know) for decades. The owner of the Plantation, James O. Eastland, was Mississippi’s most prominent segregationist. He was a cigar-gripping United States Senator for thirty-five years. Hamer and Eastland were on opposite sides of everything: Eastland, a wealthy white male, landowner, segregationist, white supremacist, and Hamer, a poor Black woman, a sharecropper, integrationist. And by one of those bizarre convergences that are so common to The DETOURIST, Hamer and Eastland were basically neighbors.
Eastland was arguably the most powerful voice for segregation, white supremacy, and the political status quo in the Southeast in the 1960s. And he had a lot of competition: George Wallace, Richard Russell, Strom Thurmond, plenty of others. Eastland as a senator was an extremely powerful figure in national politics. Fannie Lou Hamer was not, but she had an opportunity in 1964 to testify before the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, and the story of that speech is itself extraordinary, not just for what Fannie Lou Hamer had to say about her own experience, but also for who didn’t want that message to go out across national television.
Although she wasn’t living at Lafayette Street in 1962, there is a historical marker right around the corner from the address that she broadcasted on live television.
At the corner of O. B. Avenue and Elisha and Everett Langdon Street is a fairly unassuming mid-century brick church. It is called William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, and it’s got a historical marker in front of it, because on August 27, 1962, James Foreman from SNCC and James Bevel from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were at this church to try to motivate local Black citizens in Ruleville and Sunflower County to register to vote.
It was kind of a big deal for Ruleville. I mean, Bevel and Foreman were kind of celebrities within the Civil Rights Movement. Fannie Lou Hamer attended that meeting, and she was inspired to register to vote herself.
Four days later, Hamer and 18 other people traveled by bus to Indianola, the Sunflower County seat, to register to vote. And this is how she describes what happened:
It was the 31st of August in 1962 that 18 of us traveled 26 miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first class citizens.
We was met in Indianola with by policemen, highway patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the city police and the state highway patrolmen and carried back to Indianola, where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.
Now we all know what that really means is that the people on the bus were the wrong color to be eligible to vote in 1962 in Sunflower County, Mississippi. But what Fannie Lou Hamer does not say in front of the DNC is that while those nineteen people are sitting on the bus anxiously awaiting some sort of outcome resolution—Were they going to be arrested? If so, what was going to happen to them? Were they going to be let go?—during this tense moment on the bus Fanny Lou Hamer starts to sing something like “This Little Light of Mine.” It had this powerful effect of calming and consoling those eighteen other people on the bus who were trying, as she said before the DNC, “to become first-class citizens.”
Now the Mississippi Delta is known for music, and a lot of that music became commercial property, commodified into recordings, live shows, and so forth. You may know the story of how McKinley Morganfield was discovered by Alan Lomax, a field recorder and folklorist who recorded Morganfield on a plantation not far from here, called Stovall Plantation. Those recordings launched McKinley Morganfield into a prodigious career as a blues musician. He became better known as Muddy Waters, and is one of the most important figures in American music in the second half of the 20th century.
But that’s not the kind of music that Fannie Lou Hamer was employing on the bus in 1962 in Indianola. It wasn’t intended to be packaged and sold and listened to by white or Black listeners who happened to own a phonograph. It was something more raw, more indigenous, more primal, that comes directly from the experience of Fannie Lou Hamer and her compatriots on the bus, who were immersed in both the Black church and the black soil of the Mississippi Delta, which Fannie Lou Hamer had been working her entire life.
Something in the spiritual that Fannie Lou Hamer sang on that bus resonated so deeply with the rest of the people on the bus that it kept them going. Like mentioning her address on live television, it was a simple act with profound consequences and implications. It led to Hamer becoming, like James Bevel and James Foreman, a celebrity of the Civil Rights Movement. When I say “celebrity,” I don’t mean a celebrity in the sense of someone who participated in the spectacle of American popular culture. No, she was a powerful, moving figure whose story is not a rags-to-riches story. It’s kind of a rags-to-rags story, really. But it is a story of courage and the kind of resilience that maybe doesn’t get the kind of airtime these days that it really deserves.
There is a statue to Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville, but you shouldn’t have to go all the way to Ruleville, Mississippi to see Fannie Lou Hamer celebrated as an iconic, exemplary figure of what it means and what it costs a Black woman to be an American citizen.
But before we get too deep into the Fannie Lou Hamer story, it’s worth taking a minute to just pause and look around and see where we are.
Ruleville is to the west of Minter City (where we were last time) on Mississippi State Highway 8. It’s more or less in the middle of Sunflower County, which is a narrow, mostly rectangular shaped dominion west of Tallahatchie County and Leflore County. Sunflower County is basically bisected by US 49 West, one of the major routes through the Mississippi Delta, and it’s marked by place names that are evocative of the cotton culture and the convict leasing culture, and even the culture of incarceration in the Delta: Cottondale, Whitney, Parchman.
Parchman is of course, home to Mississippi’s notorious state penitentiary, popularly known as Parchman Farm and a staple motif in Delta Blues music. Parchman grew out of the convict leasing practice in the late 19th century, was established in 1901 and has become, let’s say, one of the less celebrated parts of Mississippi.
It is surrounded by vast tracts of open land. I’m sure there’s plenty of barbed wire, but when you drive past Parchman, that’s not what you see. You just see these huge fields of cotton, which are almost like a dare: I dare you to try to escape this place. You go for it. Back in the day, prison staffers mounted on horseback would protect the boundaries of Parchman farm with packs of dogs, which I guess are cheaper than miles and miles of barbed wire.
This is Sunflower County, home to Ruleville, home to Parchman, in which the culture of cotton cultivation, the culture of incarceration, are very closely related to one another—in fact, inseparable from one another. And of course blues music, a lot of which comes out of Parchman.
I had the opportunity to drive through Sunflower County with W. Ralph Eubanks, who is from Mississippi and one of its great living writers. His most recent book is a beautiful piece of work called A Place Like Mississippi, which is an extraordinary study of the state through its literary heroes and through photography. So, naturally, it’s a book I love.
I got to ride around this region with Ralph back in August of 2023. Our destination was a barn outside of the tiny municipality of Drew. Drew is about six miles north of Ruleville on US 49 W. There’s no real reason why you would recognize the name of Drew, Mississippi, unless you happen to be from the area, or from the state, or a huge Ole Miss fan, because that’s where Archie Manning came from, and hence the Manning quarterback dynasty.
But anyway, west of Drew is a barn in which Emmett Till was tortured to death. The barn is one of many aspects of Sunflower County that remain far off the main drag of American self-understanding, but it shouldn’t be that way.
I thought I had a decent understanding of the geography of Emmett Till’s lynching until I read a 2021 essay for The Atlantic Magazine by Wright Thompson. It’s called, “His Name was Emmett Till,” and more than anything else, this essay put the barn on the map for me, and for a lot of other people. The reason why it wasn’t part of the Emmett till story as it has been passed down to us—that’s a long story, but we’ll tell you a lot about our country.
Ralph and I were part of a memorial service that began in the courthouse in Sumner and processed to the barn where Till was murdered. There was basically a church service in a tent right in front of the barn. And each of us was given, in Sumner, a rose to carry with us from the courthouse where Emmett Till was denied justice, all the way out to the barn outside of Drew, which is a good ways away. During this ceremony, each of us, one by one, had an opportunity to lay a rose on the threshold of this barn, where the unspeakable took place.
It was one of those instances where things get totally turned upside down, which seems to happen a lot in the Delta. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d ever experienced something like this, but it was definitely one of the most powerful, in which a place of infamy had been turned into a kind of sacred spot that seems to hold the key to our national well-being in some ways.
As Wright says of the barn, it “both repels and demands attention.”
The barn has been mostly written out of the story Emmett Till, and so has Leslie Milam, the brother of J.W. Milam, who was living on this property in 1955 when Emmett was brought here to be killed.
The Emmett Till story touches everything in this part of the country, whether acknowledged or not. And of course, it touched the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, who lived just down the road from the barn. Stokely Carmichael recounts a story when he was driving Hamer to Sunflower City. He writes,
we had no sooner left the car and started walking down the street when a white man passed us going in the opposite direction. An ordinary-looking white man, bald head shining, wearing khakis, but Mrs. Hamer froze stock-still and caught her breath audibly. Something strange happened to her face as she turned and glared after the man. The change was so sudden that I was startled. Her usually benign expression was gone, replaced by something I’d never seen before in her face and never, ever saw again. This look of revulsion, contempt and anger was so intense that I at first took it to be a sign of physical distress. A heart attack, perhaps? It couldn’t be something totally out of character, like a hate-stare?
“Mrs. Hamer, What happened? Are you okay?” I cried.
She took a deep breath and shuddered. That’s Big Milam, the cracker who murdered that poor boy Emmett Till.”
That was the only time I ever saw anything other than compassion on Mrs. Hamer’s countenance.
On the way back from the barn, after a stop in Drew, Ralph points out to me the one room jailhouse that’s still there. It’s not in use anymore, but it looks as if it could be. And in the center of Drew, the dilapidated buildings of Drew High School.
South of Drew on US 49 W, about halfway until Ruleville, the buildings that make up North Sunflower Academy aren’t dilapidated at all. They’re very ordinary, prosaic looking buildings, but North Sunflower was started as a segregation academy, as a reaction by white Mississippians to Brown v. Board of Education, which demanded the desegregation of public facilities, including public schools. A lot of white Mississippians didn’t want that, so they started their own schools, private schools, like North Sunflower and so many others across the South. Some of which, like this one, still maintain the mascot, “Rebels,” and still use the iconic mascot from Ole Miss, “Colonel Reb,” that prodigiously mustachioed old white planter with a red Stetson hat casually leaning on a cane, looking just a little too comfortable with himself, which has somehow survived in these high schools across the Southeast. Ole Miss hasn’t used it since 2003. But he is still out there, mostly on private high schools known as “seg academies.” And, in fact, if you find yourself traveling the backroads of the Southeast and you come upon a school named “Rebels” with a mascot that looks like Colonel Reb, chances are—based on my unscientific research—100% that that school was started as a seg academy in response to Brown V. Board.
But keep going a few more miles on US 49 W south, and you’ll reach Ruleville. Ruleville is small enough that I can read you the entire description of the place from the Mississippi WPA Guide. It reads:
Ruleville (131 feet alt., 1,181 pop.), like Drew, draws a substantial prosperity from the surrounding plantations. Here is a privately supported Chinese school for the children of the few Chinese families here and in Drew.
And that’s it. That’s all the WPA Guide has to say about Ruleville in 1938. Which brings up one of those more curious features of the Delta: The Delta Chinese. There are pockets of Chinese immigrants across the Delta that have their own kind of micro-cultures. They’ve tended to support themselves with grocery stores, which you encounter in places like Cleveland and Greenville. Maybe less so than you used to, but when you encounter it, it’s one of those things that you don’t really expect. And as you know, those kinds of things are all over the place around here.
The Delta Chinese could be its own podcast episode; it could be its own podcast series. It’s a fascinating demographic mashup of cultures—of Chinese immigrant populations in the Mississippi Delta during Jim Crow. That’s when a lot of these families would migrate from China to the Delta. As I understand it, it’s due to the fact that labor was always hard to come by in this region, and people who were looking for work from, say, China or Latin America could find it in the Delta.
So, for example, you have Chinese restaurants and Chinese grocers in Greenville, Mississippi, and you have tamales in places like Clarksdale. By the way, what I just told you, I learned primarily from Wright Thompson over a lunch in Greenwood, Mississippi while I was eating an Italian beef sandwich in a restaurant owned by a Black family. So there you go.
But we’re here in Ruleville not to talk about tamales or Chinese groceries. The WPA Guide has already alluded to the fact that plantation culture dominated Ruleville in 1937, 1938, when the Guide was written. At that time, Fannie Lou Hamer was about 20 years old. She was born in 1917, and lived and worked on a plantation with her family outside of Ruleville. W. D. Marlow was the plantation owner, and this being the 1930s Jim Crow, it was a brutal existence.
The people who worked on the plantations in Sunflower County and across the Delta were almost entirely Black, but they had no political power whatsoever. And white planters like W.D. Marlow wanted to keep it that way. So in August of 1962, after Fannie Lou Hamer had tried to register to vote in Indianola, Marlow kicked her off the plantation. And that’s how she ended up at 626 East Lafayette Street in Ruleville.
About a week and a half later, somebody shot into that home sixteen times. The following summer, in June 1963, Fannie Lou was in Charleston doing a voter registration drive led by the SCLC. They took a Trailways bus back from Charleston to Ruleville, and when they stopped in Winona, they were detained by Mississippi State Patrolmen. The short version is: she was taken into a jail cell in which a state patrolman ordered two Black men to beat her with a blackjack. She suffered permanent injuries from this beating in this most sinister display of white power, using Black men to beat a Black woman. It’s hard to imagine a more cynical display of white supremacy, in which Black bodies are used by white men to beat one another.
Despite the apparent wishes of the Mississippi State Patrol, that was not the end of Fannie Lou Hamer. Jump ahead to the following summer, August, 1964, almost two years to the day after she attempted to vote in Indianola, Mississippi.
In August, 1964, the Civil Rights Movement hobbles into Atlantic City. Dr. King is there. He limps in nursing a sprained ankle. Hamer comes in limping, too, because of a case of polio she suffered as a child. Just two months before this, three civil rights workers—Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney—were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Lyndon Johnson of Texas has been President of the United States for nine months. This is not the Lyndon Johnson invoking “We Shall Overcome.” This is not LBJ of the Civil Rights Act. But Johnson is President. He is no special friend of MLK at this point. He is, in fact, having his hotel rooms in Atlantic City wiretapped.
Hamer and King and other civil rights leaders are in Atlantic City for the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Hamer is there, testifying to the Credentials Committee of the DNC that the official Democratic Party in the state of Mississippi does not represent the people of that state, and that the official delegates from the Democratic Party should not be seated at the DNC.
With the backing of King and other national civil rights leaders, she is trying to persuade the DNC to seat delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which has sent sixty-eight delegates to Atlantic City. So she’s making this case to the Democratic Party, on behalf of Black Mississippians, that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party have a voice in national politics. So she’s giving this powerful personal testimony at the DNC.
King has been there. This thing is televised. It’s on primetime. One person gets really uncomfortable with this, because she’s like the Booker Wright of the sharecropping culture in the Delta (if you remember Booker from last time.) She is exposing the reality of what it is like to be a Black woman in a sharecropping culture.
The culture she describes is ruthless, violent. She’s giving personal, firsthand testimony of having been beaten in a jail cell by two other Black men, who were forced to beat her with a blackjack in the presence of a law enforcement officer in the cell, who of course was white.
Now Hamer is giving this testimony on national television. It’s making LBJ really, really nervous.
So it’s late summer 1964. Everyone is wondering who LBJ is going to pick as his vice presidential running mate. So suddenly he calls an impromptu press conference to announce not who his VP will be, but that it has been nine months since Governor Connolly of Texas was wounded in the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. Nine months. Now, nobody marks a nine month anniversary that I’m aware of (and it doesn’t even make sense to call it a nine-month “anniversary” because it’s not even a year).
But Johnson knew this would be covered by live TV, so he got up and talked for a few minutes for the sole purpose of blocking Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony from being broadcast in living rooms across the country.
It didn’t really work, because later that night, Hamer’s testimony was all over the place. It was being broadcast on the major networks. She got to have her say. And her testimony is incredibly moving. She’s herself moved, wiping away a tear by the time it’s over. And at the heart of it is an interrogation of the United States.
I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered. All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America? The land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hook because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America.
Now I encourage you to go look this clip up and watch the whole thing if you can yourself. (It’s on YouTube.)
What Fannie Lou Hamer is giving voice to, it’s multitudes. One of the things that I find striking about this passage in particular is something that comes up a lot on these trips: here is a Black woman who has no reason to trust the American narrative of itself, to trust the language of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” She has no reason to put any stock in those promises, those classic riffs on the song of American identity. And yet, like many civil rights leaders, like King, like James Baldwin, she is appealing to that American self-understanding, holding it to account, interrogating it, demanding that it live up to its promises. Just as King said, at the very end of his life, “all we say to America is, be true to what you said on paper.” That’s what Fannie Lou Hamer is putting before the Democratic National Convention, and by television broadcast before the entire country: an interrogation of America’s self-understanding.
And that’s uncomfortable for the President of the United States, who—God bless him—is going through his own sort of transformations at this stage. And he will come out by the end of this, maybe, a little bit different. At least his public dedication to civil rights will be made more explicit. But for now, he still thinks that he’s a person who can get away with preempting a Black woman’s testimony on national television by a completely specious press conference that means absolutely nothing. It could be one of our most prominent, if not least remembered, recorded instances of a white man talking over a Black woman.
In a way, LBJ is just putting on display the logic of white supremacy at the highest levels, and the way it works: if you’re a white man from Texas who’s President, you get to say whatever you want at any time, and it doesn’t matter who’s speaking. You have the right to air time.
The 1964 DNC didn’t end especially well for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In the end, their entreaties to the credentials committee at the DNC didn’t yield much. The MFDP had brought sixty-eight delegates to the DNC. The National Party allowed them just two delegates to represent Mississippi, but only as at-large delegates. They were allowed to participate, but not to vote. Many members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party felt rebuffed by this and walked out of the DNC.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s story, I mean, it’s hard to put words to, it’s almost unbelievable the amount of suffering that this woman endured. Her uterus was forcibly removed in 1961 without her permission. She was imprisoned and beaten within inches of her life. Her home was shot at 16 times. And she died young, at age 59, from cancer and other complications that surely stemmed from a very difficult life. This is a person who literally went from nothing, sharecropping a white person’s farm in Mississippi, to running for Congress in 1968.
If you think about the shifting tides of American party politics in the 20th century, Fannie Lou Hamer is at the center of that shift. In the first half of the 1960s, the Democratic Party in the South was a plantation dinner party posing as a political party. It was entirely white. Its platform was nakedly white supremacist, opposed to integration. The entire platform was the antithesis of the vision of the Civil Rights Movement. But in 1964, Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was an attempt to prevent the all-white Democratic Party from having a stranglehold on power in Mississippi.
And as the name suggests, Hamer’s aspirations were profoundly local. They were rooted in the soil, literally. One of the things that she did after the peak of her political engagement at the party level was to encourage people in Mississippi to plant vegetables. She was dedicated to the dirt in Mississippi and the people who worked it. She was one of them. She had worked the soil in Mississippi her entire life.
But she felt that the Democratic Party did not represent the people of Mississippi. Speaking in terms of numbers, that was plainly true. The majority of Mississippians in the Delta were Black. And that majority had zero political power and influence. So when voting rights initiatives began in the 1960s, they were not met with a lot of pleasure on the part of the ruling class. And Fannie Lou Hamer’s life is a testament to the resistance among white leaders, white elites, white aristocrats, and ordinary white people to the idea of Black enfranchisement. Fannie Lou Hamer took the blows for that movement. And she didn’t just take physical blows.
This is worth paying attention to right now, not just because of the political climate that we are all just breathing in like toxic fumes every day, that is just getting grosser by the day. The mechanisms are not that different now, but they are somewhat different. A few minutes ago I mentioned that Hamer was an essential figure in the changing tides of American party politics. If you’ve had a minute to observe the commitments of the two major parties in our country, the Democratic and the Republican parties, you will see that they have basically flipped. The Democratic Party that once represented the white ruling class, which held whites-only primaries in Georgia—advocated by my cousin Allen Candler, for example, Governor of Georgia in the late-19th century.
During the Johnson administration, the Democratic Party at the national level embraced the Civil Rights Movement. And by contrast, the Republican Party, which began in the 19th century as the party of Lincoln—the party of the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments, the Party of Abolition—is now anything but the party of Abraham Lincoln.
I don’t want to get too much into politics here, because frankly, I don’t really know that much about them. But I do know that Fannie Lou Hamer is at a critical juncture in the Democratic Party’s history and in the nation’s history, calling the party to the floor, and saying, the Democratic Party at the national and at the state level, but particularly at the state level, does not represent the fullness of the people of Mississippi, the majority of whom are Black, and the majority of whom do not have the power to vote, and the majority of whom live in fear and lack the same rights in practice that their white brothers and sisters possess.
In some ways Hamer is inviting the Democratic Party to a crisis of conscience.
I question America. Is this America?
And by the way, it wasn’t just the Mississippi Democratic Party that didn’t like where Hamer was going with all this. LBJ didn’t like it; [he] referred to her as “that illiterate woman.”
Really, this isn’t about party politics at all. It’s about an American self-examination, beseeching an entire nation to look at itself honestly. It is entirely fitting that someone like Fannie Lou Hamer would put this question to America. I’m not sure that there is anyone who quite so powerfully represents this fundamental paradox that Dr. King articulated on that very same day in Atlantic City in 1964. He said, “for it is in these saints in ordinary walks of life that the true spirit of democracy finds its most profound and abiding expression.”
“Saints in ordinary walks of life.” That was Fannie Lou Hamer: the kind of person who had the least reason to represent the true spirit of American democracy, and yet gave it its most profound and abiding expression. And if King is right, that she represents the true spirit of American democracy, then that spirit may consist in a rigorous, relentless questioning of America’s seriousness about its own claims, about the depth of its intention to be true to what it says on paper.
Read the transcript and listen to audio of Hamer’s entire testimony here.